Every morning it’s the same. I wake up in the darkness while my loved ones still sleep. I tiptoe into the kitchen to make coffee. The Pot sits there on the stove, in the shadows. And out of the silence, it speaks: “Well, Haupt, what’s for dinner?” What a rude question before I am even caffeinated! I could prevent this inquisition, of course, by putting The Pot away at night, but the thing is too dang heavy. It’s my 5 quart Lodge cast iron dutch oven. It’s the pot I use, and (in spite of the morning inquest) love the most.
I recall a sweet little piece called “The Pupil and the Black Pot,” penned by a young monk for The Zen Monastary Cookbook:
It is the biggest pot I have ever seen.
It is the heaviest pot I have ever lifted.
It can feed a biblical number of people.
It can empty in an awesomely short amount of time.
It can glisten incredibly tempting.
It is one of the kitchen cornerstones.
It is one of the mute role models of monastic life, never complaining,
always ready to serve, a forever forgiving teacher.
So true! My mother has a pot like this, and so does my grandmother, and probably your grandmother. Their mothers had one. Ma Ingalls packed one in the covered wagon when she traveled with her family from Minnesota to the Dakota Territories. It’s small wonder that cast iron has endured–a nicely seasoned cast iron pan is as slick as any manufactured nonstick surface, and distributes and retains heat more evenly than any pan but copper (much better than stainless or aluminum!). But compared to copper or good stainless, it is practically free.
My 5 quart Lodge cast iron dutch oven was a gift from my mother a few years ago, and you can get a new one for about $30. My cast iron skillet, which an elderly landlord gave to me in college, was a wedding gift to her when she was married over 70 years ago–it couldn’t be in better shape. Lodge is the only domestic manufacturer of cast iron cookware, still using some of their original molds, which are over 100 years old. The pans are cast of scrap steel converted back into iron, and pig-iron ingot (an intermediate stage in the melting of iron ore). You can get cheaper cast iron, but its hard to beat Lodge quality (cheaper pans will have hot spots, and may eventually crack with heavy use or high heat). I love the look of good cast iron–so rich and rustic. It moves easily from the stovetop to the oven, and I use it for almost everything.
People fuss about seasoning, which sounds mysterious and time-consusming, but is actually very simple. Heat the oven to 350. Wash and dry your pan, then heat it gently over low heat on the stovetop (don’t forget about it!). Rub the pan evenly inside and out with a neutral oil (corn is great, canola is fine), then bake in the oven for about an hour, and let it cool there before removing it. Done! Repeat a couple of times a year, or do a booster-seasoning if your pan seems to need it, or if you cook a particularly acidic dish. Wipe off excess oil after seasoning, especially if you aren’t going to use the pan for a few days–you don’t want the oily surface to become sticky and rancid. Many Lodge pots now come pre-seasoned, but it’s still nice to give them a light washing and seasoning at home before use. The finish will just become lovelier over the years.
There is a looming myth that you will forever ruin the seasoning on a cast iron pot if you scrub it with soap. While it’s true that a light wiping is all that is normally needed and rigorous scouring should be avoided, a little scrub with mild soap now and then won’t hurt a thing. Dry the pan and lid well after washing to prevent rust, and if some turns up, gently remove it with steel wool.
Cast iron adds a small but measurably healthy trace of iron to our cooking.. The lid of the dutch oven is lined with prongs, which collect condensed moisture and drop it into the pot, so you can steam many vegetables without an insert, including sturdy greens like chard and kale. Can’t beat it for sauces, soups, and stews. In addition to stovetop frying, the skillet can be used for frittatas, quiches, cobblers, even pie– and of course it is the pan of choice for corn bread.
Cast iron is heavy, which is one of the reasons that elderly people sometimes stop using it, and beautiful seasoned cast iron will turn up at yard and estate sales, or sit unused in the back of our grandmother’s cupboard–have a look. Expensive modern cookware gleans much of its appeal from marketing and television chef endorsements. Cast iron will most often perform just as well (or better), and looks just as good. I love that we can stand in this historical cookware lineage, have wonderful pots, spend very little money, and cook healthfully all at once.
For more than you could ever want to know about the care of cast-iron (including the repair of cracks), check out this website.
What a wonderful little piece! Somehow you find a way of sneaking in and reminding me of the simple pleasures in life, and in this case, the fact that I don’t have a cast iron pan (or pot).
Thank you for the gentle reminder of simplicity Lyanda! ~ J
I love my cast iron skillets. The unanimous favorite use in our family is for deep dish pizzas!
Oh Lyanda! A topic close to my heart. My husband and I have had a cast iron skillet that we still use after 30+ years. It’s been so long, I can’t even remember if we bought it new or used (probably used).
I don’t eat wheat flour any more, and my innovative gluten-free flours really don’t work for this recipe any more – but one of my all time favorite things to make in my skillet is a Dutch Baby. I think it is an old Sunset Magazine recipe.
1/4 c butter melted in cast iron skillet in 425 oven
mix until well blended
1c white flour – stir just to mix
pour into hot skillet and return to oven. Cook at 400 for about 1/2 hour?? — wait until the Dutch Baby puffs up and over the edge of the skillet — giant popover. Mmmmmmmm the best with maple syrup! Also good with fresh fruit.
Excellent article! I’m going to think about pulling that old Lodge of mine from the bottom of the stack and re-seasoning it…
One quibble, though: too much iron is _not_ healthy for you, especially if you are a man. Mr. T might want to have his levels tested, and make sure he doesn’t take any iron via supplements. (Of course if he gives blood regularly, he’s protected that way.)
Here’s one reference: http://vitamins-minerals.suite101.com/article.cfm/the_effects_of_too_much_iron_in_the_diet
Thanks, David. The added iron from cast iron is just a trace.
Lovely. I just got a big Lodge dutch oven for Christmas. (I must admit it is the easy-to-clean enamel kind, with the drawback that metal tools will scratch it, and it can chip–but I still love it.) I don’t know how I ever cooked without it. Nothing scorches in them–I’m finding excuses galore to cook the night’s meal in mine.
Get out of my head! I’ve been obsessing about cast iron since I got a new skillet for Christmas, and have referenced the What’s Cooking America website about 57 times. It’s great! This post is great! And I’m glad to see you are not only using your cast iron for liquids, but tomatoes, too!
I can’t believe it! Ditto Lauren! Last night my wife and I were discussing the qualities of a decent camp oven (We call them), We use our cast iron frying pan for all our stove top frying, It makes awesome frittata and does slow cooking really well. Your images have inspired us to get a larger pot that we can use in oven and stove.
Thanks for this. I love to cook and I get irritated when my “quality” cookware wears out after just a year or two. I think I am going to look into this.
Ode to the cast iron! We are lucky enough to have a near complete set of Griswold skillets that we inherited from a neighbor of my grandmother. These are all we use in our kitchen. We don’t own any non-stick cookware. We are also lucky enough to have set for our camping gear (not great for backpacking, to be sure!). There is nothing like the smell of bacon cooked over a campfire in a Griswold on a frosty camp morning. Thanks so much for this post it made me grin from ear to ear!
Thank you for singing the praises of cast iron. I love my skillet, which I use for everything but especially a sort of invented Yorkshire pudding. I’ve been meaning to look up how to season it; now I won’t have to. Happy cooking!
I need someone to repair an 8 qt. cast iron pot
I’m a huge fan of cast iron, especially Lodge. You might be interested in my blog, check it out!
Great story! I had a Lodge skillet years ago and it cooked great. Don’t know what happened to it. (one of my kids probably swiped it) When my fancy nonstick model wears out I think I’ll get another one. I have a enamel 6 quart cast iron oven that can cook enough food for a small army. It’s great for making BIG batches of soup. I love it.
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